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Elicia Clements and Lesley J. Higgins eds., Victorian Aesthetic Conditions: Pater Across the Arts

Stefano Evangelista
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Elicia Clements and Lesley J. Higgins eds., Victorian Aesthetic Conditions: Pater Across the Arts, Basingstoke & New York, Palgrave, 2010. ISBN 978-0-230-23497-0

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1“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” This memorable quotation from Walter Pater is one of the iconic British responses to Lessing’s aesthetic theories and Baudelaire’s notion of “correspondences”, both of which exerted a strong influence on the work of nineteenth-century authors and artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Swinburne and, of course, Pater himself. Pater’s pronouncement on the relation between the arts occurs in the 1877 essay “The School of Giorgione”, which was later added to a re-edition of The Renaissance and is today usually read in that context. In the essay on Giorgione, Pater puts forward a theory that, using a German locution perhaps in order to emphasise its universality, he names Ander-streben. Anders-streben is the process by means of which the arts, literally, strive towards one another, attempting to overcome the formal limitations imposed on them by their media and, in this process, “lend each other new forces”, as Pater says—that is, engage in creative experiments that represent one of the most vital means of artistic innovation. In this vision of constant intermingling and evolution, music holds a privileged status because of its unique, perfect integration of form and content, its appeal to a cognitive process entirely based on sensual perception. In Victorian Aesthetic Conditions: Pater Across the Arts, Elicia Clements and Lesley J. Higgins take their cue from Pater’s theories in the essay on Giorgione, and bring together thirteen essays by an impressive array of established and young critics who explore the relations between the arts as they occur across Pater’s body of works. The emphasis here is on what the editors call “interartistic discourse”, defined in the introduction as “a particular kind of interdisciplinary critique [that] remaps and reconfigures in the act of crossing and transgressing boundaries” (3).

2The first four essays are grouped together in a section entitled “Pater and Contemporary Visualities”. Digging through the intertextual references and allusions of Pater’s prose, Jonah Siegel brings out Pater’s awareness of the museum as institution and its role in mediating the spatial and social experience of art objects—in short, their meaning—in the modern age. Siegel is especially concerned with classical sculpture and follows the reverberations of the idea of museum in Pater’s oeuvre, particularly in Marius and the still little-explored late essay on Raphael. Pater seldom wrote about modern art but, as J. B. Bullen argues in an essay rich in historical and biographical detail, his work intersects a network of modern artists, critics and writers that made up one of the most avant-garde circles of the age. Bullen builds on the sparse archival evidence that links Pater’s name to Swinburne and Simeon Solomon in order to show that Pater, behind his diffident façade, is a daring thinker who was forced to hide, by means of intertextuality and historical displacement, the most provocative aspects of his thought in order to avoid public and moral censorship, especially on the grounds of his interest in homoeroticism. The same historical approach is in evidence in Lesley Higgins’s essay on Pater, Corot and Whistler. This historical reconstruction of how Pater would have been able to encounter the work of these artists contemporary to himself complements Siegel’s research on the role of cultural institutions in Pater’s first-hand experience of art. In her analysis of Corot, Higgins highlights the importance of French art criticism (especially by Baudelaire and Gautier) for Pater’s art theory; while in her reading of Whistler she puts forward a suggestive argument about Pater’s participation in the cultural debate about “completeness” or finish in art that focussed around this painter. Part of Higgins’s argument is that Corot’s art inspires Pater’s narrative technique in his experimental short story “The Child in the House”. Similarly, in the final essay in this section, Colin Cruise identifies a strong instance of inter-artistic crossing in his analysis of quotation and allegory. Comparing Pater’s and Solomon’s reception of Botticelli, respectively in prose and on canvas, Cruise draws a series of powerfully suggestive parallels between the compositional technique and the use of quotation employed by Solomon and Pater, who is widely held as the first critic to have raised the status of Botticelli in nineteenth-century Britain. The best work in this opening section of Aesthetic Conditions highlights the rewards obtained by an historicist study of Pater’s participation in the visual culture of his times and the reconstruction of the spaces and modes of his engagement with specific artists.

3The central section of the collection engages with important questions that take the reader to the theoretical core of the inter-artistic experiment. Here critics look at how the inter-artistic experience leads to aesthetic revisions, imaginary landscapes and new narrative and critical forms. Kenneth Daley, for instance, explores the topic of ekphrasis, a crucial mode of inter-artistic writing, by means of a detailed close reading of Pater’s short story “Denis L’Auxerrois”. Daley’s object of study is the imaginary tapestry described in the beginning of the story, starting from which he traces Pater’s interest in domestic, applied and more traditionally feminine modes of artistic practice and his use of the fictional technique of interweaving mythological references, which he shows to be closely related to the technique of tapestry. A similar focus on the interpenetration of material and textual discourses is in evidence in Lene Østermark-Johansen’s essay on sculpture, which traces Pater’s shifting attitude to the three-dimensionality of sculpture and his use of touch in some of the essays in The Renaissance. Through a series of skilful and imaginative close readings Østermark-Johansen manages to bring out the ways in which Pater’s close engagement with sculpture and relief shapes the very texture of both his critical prose and his reading practices. This part of the collection also includes contributions on artistic media not previously associated with Pater. Norman Kelvin provides a speculation about Pater’s engagement with photography, in the form of his deliberate exclusion of it from his work in the face of the growing success of the photographic medium in the second half of the nineteenth century. While Kelvin, in the light of lack of real evidence of Pater’s interest in photography, resorts to touching very lightly on his actual works, Carolyn Williams does precisely the opposite in a brilliantly counterintuitive argument that presents Pater as an early film theorist. Her essay is a stimulating study of Pater’s work on painting, music and motion against the background of nineteenth-century theories of theatricality and tableau. Williams engages with what the editors call the notion of “dynamic arts” with the imaginative energy and attentiveness to texture and nuance, so crucial to understanding this elusive writer, that characterise her previous work on Pater. Williams’s essay forms, together with those by Elicia Clements and Andrew Eastham, a cluster of contributions interested in aesthetic theory. Unsurprisingly therefore all three critics return frequently to “The School of Giorgione” in their readings. Clements’s concern is with music—more precisely with the material embodiment of the musical experience through the notions of soundscape and aurality. By studying the interconnection of elements of sound and space in “Giorgione” and Marius the Epicurean, Clements probes further the exact meaning of “the condition of music” theorised by Pater in his famous dictum. Eastham turns to the overlooked topic of Pater’s engagement with drama and performance. In his attentive analysis Pater is a theorist of theatricality, whose early work evolves from condemning a pejorative notion of theatricality as ossified convention to exploring the productive crossing between the idea of theatrical performance in life and the aesthetic function of theatre as a specific medium.

4The collection closes with three essays on writing, which shift the focus to textuality as an obvious partner in the overarching narrative of inter-artistic dialogue. The grouping here is more loose, the rationale behind it less apparent than in the earlier parts of the collection; still this section contains very valuable contributions in their own right. Such is the case, for instance, with Matthew Potolsky’s revisionist reading of Pater’s politics, not the sexual politics which continue to be productively explored in recent criticism, but cultural politics. Potolsky analyses references to political events in Pater’s writings, persuasively uncovering a pervasive interest in the relationship between art and community, and between artistic production and the dynamics of political change. Particularly interesting to Potolsky is the politicisation of the act of reading and artistic reception more generally, which takes him to Gaston de Latour, Pater’s second, unfinished novel, still under-explored in the critical literature. Laurel Brake also bases her essay on Gaston, examining the complex history of composition and serialisation of this book and reading it in the context of Pater’s involvement in journalism and magazine publishing and of his novelistic career. While Kate Hext offers a sustained and confident examination of the influence of Friedrich Schiller’s ideal of self-culture on Pater that contextualises The Renaissance within the aesthetic and political dimensions of the reception of Schiller’s philosophy in the nineteenth century (this essay postulates a withdrawal of the Paterian critic from society that is in implicit but fundamental disagreement with Potolsky’s).

5Victorian Aesthetic Conditions follows on from other relatively recent, high-calibre collections of Pater criticism such as Pater in the 1990s and Transparencies of Desire, which aimed to showcase the new trends in Pater scholarship of, roughly, twenty and ten years ago. This latest collection is a fit successor to those, if sometimes more conversational in tone. It shows the healthy state and wide appeal of Pater criticism, and leaves readers looking forward to the publication of longer and more developed studies by many of the authors represented in it. Victorian Aesthetic Conditions is at its strongest in the essays that take onboard the full challenge of Pater’s interdisciplinary practice, examining how the act of crossing between literature and visual culture entails a fundamental, ideological questioning of distinctions that disrupts not only disciplinary but cultural and epistemological boundaries. The collection also prepares the ground for a much-needed, full revaluation of Pater’s work among art historians, too few of whom are represented among its contributors.

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Stefano Evangelista, « Elicia Clements and Lesley J. Higgins eds., Victorian Aesthetic Conditions: Pater Across the Arts », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 74 Automne | 2011, mis en ligne le 24 novembre 2012, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL :

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Stefano Evangelista

Trinity College, University of Oxford.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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